An optional essay is always “optional,” so if you have the opportunity to showcase yourself further on your application--DO IT! It can be a valuable and additive component to your application; however, you must use it to your advantage in the right way.
Many optional essays are open-ended, asking you to include anything additional that you believe the admissions committee should know about you. Some ask specific questions that, if relevant to you, should be addressed. For example, you may be asked about your relocation plan if you are choosing a part-time MBA that is far from where you live currently. If it applies to you, then answer it. In these cases, the optional essay is really only “semi” optional.
In general, keep the following in mind when approaching the optional essay, especially for open-ended cases:
Explain gaps or weaknesses
One of the best uses of the optional essay is to explain anything you perceive as a gap in your application. Perhaps you did not have time for extracurriculars because you had to work two jobs to support your way through school. Or your overall undergrad GPA was low because you were going through a difficult time with a family matter. Or there is a gap in your work experience because you had to go on medical leave. Whatever the “weakness,” it’s best that you address it head-on, explaining the circumstances – and ideally, also explaining how you overcame it or highlighting great ways that “cancel” it out (for example, while you may have had a low GPA in college, you have been recognized as the best employee at your company). It’s better to provide the admissions committee with the facts than to leave them guessing and assuming the worst.
Include new / additional positive information
It’s a mistake to waste the optional essay on anything redundant with the rest of your application. The optional essay should provide new information that would “complete” your picture or be cohesive with the rest of your application. If you do not have to address any weaknesses, then the optional essay is a great opportunity for you to highlight some strengths – strengths that were not addressed in other parts of the application, of course. For example, perhaps you helped a friend cope with depression, being there for them consistently, showing a true testament to your dedication, compassion, and loyalty. In an example like this, make sure to include specifics around how you helped them as well as the “triumphs” that resulted, such as how your friend succeeded in something otherwise seemingly impossible because of your dedication. You can use the optional essay to explain different positive qualities about you that mesh with the “brand” you’ve built in the rest of your application.
Finally, note that none of the above are mutually exclusive. For example, while the optional essay may have a specific question attached to it that is relevant to you, more likely than not, there will also be the opportunity for you to address gaps and/or include new positive information.
About the Author: Amanda Gharghour is a member of www.admitadvantage.com, a leading admissions consultancy, and www.admit.me, a free admissions social network with the goal of leveling the admissions playing field.